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Review: An Opera Sings of a World on the Verge of Ending

One of the many things that came to an end in the conflagration of World War II was the great Italian opera tradition. Puccini, its apotheosis, had died in 1924; in the conflict’s wake, modernism ruled European music, and a certain strand of lyric theater was over.

Which adds a bit of poignancy to the fact that Ricky Ian Gordon’s paean to that tradition, his new opera “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” is set in Ferrara, Italy, on the cusp of the war, amid members of the city’s Jewish community who are largely blind to the tragedy that awaits them. Their coming destruction is mirrored by that of the emotive, melodic form being used to tell their story.

Emotive and melodic, yes, but here also overdone and overlong. Based on Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 novel of the same name, which Vittorio De Sica adapted into a 1970 film, Gordon’s opera replaces its source’s poetic richness with stentorian earnestness that feels like it continues unabated for, with intermission, three hours.

Presented by New York City Opera and the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, the work is, because of pandemic delays, opening almost simultaneously with another Gordon opera, “Intimate Apparel,” at Lincoln Center Theater. Together, they are a substantial showcase for a composer best known for his artfully impassioned songs, and for his eclecticism and versatility. “Intimate Apparel,” set in 1905 New York, draws on Americana and ragtime; “Finzi-Continis,” italianità.

But while Gordon is clearly aiming for Puccinian sumptuousness and extroversion, the score is not exactly tuneful; the 15-member orchestra, conducted by James Lowe, doesn’t offer hummable hits so much as a plush carpet and punctuation for the fervid singers. The vocal lines aren’t ear worms, either. They just keep surging forth in full-throttle monologues and ensembles.

It’s a bellowing take on a story that’s not without whispers. Giorgio is a middle-class young man who gets caught up in the circle of the Finzi-Continis, aristocratic Jews living on their verdant estate in idyllic insulation from the increasingly unfriendly world. He falls madly in love with Micòl, the family’s daughter, as the Fascists take over Italy and antisemitism is codified in law.

Straightforward enough, but in the opera, far too much incident is crowded into 19 scenes, not counting a prologue and epilogue — an uninterrupted trudge of exposition. Michael Korie’s libretto could have been significantly culled; among other things, the subplot of Micòl’s brother, a closeted gay man longing for his former roommate as his health fails, could have been easily excised. And Korie’s text, which often tips into rhyme, can tend risible: “A feeling I infer of anarchy astir.”

As Giorgio, the tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro hardly stopped roaring at the performance on Sunday, but at least he did it indefatigably and with pure tone. The soprano Rachel Blaustein brought a sweetness to Micòl that persevered through her character’s capriciousness. Michael Capasso and Richard Stafford’s staging did its best to handle the flood of episodes, relying on a simple set illuminated by John Farrell’s evocative projections.

The opera’s ending jarred surprisingly with the post-Holocaust imperative — doctrine at this point — to “never forget.” Standing after the war in the ruined synagogue of Ferrara, Giorgio addresses his memories, singing, “To live my life, I need to let you go.” It is an intriguing turn from tradition in a work that otherwise hews to it all too ceaselessly.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

Through Sunday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Manhattan; nycopera.com.

Circassia News

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